“Why did you come?” the voice accused, its owner’s head angled like a canon toward the audience, eyes raised to the top of their sockets, no white visible, only the dark irises, seeming to point at us.
I waited for what I was sure he would say–something about sustaining Irena and her mother in their time of grief, and then, maybe, an acknowledgement of how hard it is to accept God’s will and the suggestion of a different way of thinking about death couched in some soothing words. I had come to support Irena. I had come because I imagined that, if a loved one of mine had died, I would have taken comfort in the presence of friends. I had met Irena for coffee two weeks earlier, and I knew that her father, Massimo, who had had heart problems for years, had been declining, and that for the past few months he had been in the hospital, dementia bearing down on his already fragile health and worrying Irena and her mother constantly. I was glad to be able to attend the funeral, to be supportive in a small way; I wished I could have done more.
The church—a large, modern one with a nave in the shape of a fan spreading out from the altar—was full, and there were people clustered in the back, too, just as they were, I remembered, at Italian weddings, when the younger people would stand near the door, unwilling to commit to hearing the whole mass, and duck out occasionally to smoke a cigarette or to chat.
Although I am not Catholic, the Catholic liturgy, even in Italian, is familiar to me, not only from when I went to church at a monastery near Siena, but from childhood, its words being almost verbatim those of the Episcopal liturgy, and its cadences, even in a foreign language, singularly recognisable. I love the beauty of old church interiors with their dark, mottled light and their odor of incense and stone. I love the watery sound of the organ, the lyrics and rhythms of the hymns, the gorgeous language of the Bible. The discipline and pace and familiarity of the rite itself leave me feeling, not coincidentally of course, relieved and pacified. I had come, in part, for all of that, too.
“You came for two reasons,” the priest growled, his head still butting forward, “to save your soul”—here he paused, head cocked, looking over the congregation–“and Massimo’s! You heard the call today—the call to save your souls.”
I hadn’t thought of saving my soul as I had gotten ready that morning, nor, frankly, had I thought of it on any other morning, either. In fact, my soul had rarely been on my radar screen. When I am at my deepest, I think about the difference between what does or does not give a sense of meaning to my day or week or year. In those moments, I promise myself I’ll prioritise those things—time with my daughters or my sister, honing my wine project, walking the fields with the dogs—such that the sense of meaning will grow and solidify, until some day, I fantasize, it will displace all fears, all doubt.
“And thank God you heard that call!” the priest continued, “Because time is running out. You are alive, unlike Massimo, because God decided to let you breathe for a little longer, today. But you are running out of time.”
It was strange to think of Massimo’s death–or of my being alive, for that matter–as the result of someone’s deliberate choice, rather than as an inexplicable circumstance. And hadn’t I been trying to slow down for as long as I could remember? To stop thinking of life as a race? What harsh, old fashioned notions this man was preaching, I thought. I looked at Irena a few pews in front of me to see how she was reacting to the dire phrases. I saw her turn around and look beyond me at the crowd in the back; she might have been looking for someone while taking note, also, of who was there. Then she faced the altar again, twisting some strands of hair in her lefthand fingers, as I had often seen her do in her office or over coffee. From time to time, she leaned over and murmured something to her mother.
The sermon continued: we should be as the Saints, and the sooner we started, the less time we and Massimo would suffer in Purgatory. The invective struck me, suddenly, as funny—made me think of the sing-song voice and empty grin my mother used when imitating the nuns who had been her childhood teachers. She had told us a hundred times about being made to walk the rounds of the classrooms with her forbidden chewing gum stuck to her nose, how her illegible handwriting was the consequence of the nuns’ too rigid penmanship demands. The priest took himself so seriously; my mother would have laughed him off. I looked beyond the priest at the artwork hung over the altar—a colored bas-relief of Jesus, flanked by two female figures who must have been saints, though, after the modern fashion bore no halos or other identifying signs. All three of them were looking down, admiring a source of light around which Jesus’s hands were cupped, a light emanating from his groin. I stifled a wicked giggle and looked away, but the sight of the bored congregation made for a funny contrast, and I had to bow my head while I shook for a moment with mirth.
It was all so very Italian—the fire and brimstone priest, the lackadaisical congregation, the macho Jesus and his admiring cohorts. In the Protestant churches of my youth, everyone attending the service adopted the carefully-groomed look, the prissy demeanor and the painful earnestness of the pastor—but not here! The priest raged and threatened, the congregation smoked, flirted and ignored him. Italians believe in God, but it’s not as if they doubt themselves. Whereas, Stateside, we’re all constantly trying to change.
The Eucharistic prayer was said, and some people got up to take communion—ostensibly only those who had been to confession, for the priest had warned us about that, too: “Communion without confession: those of you who are doing that now are sinners!” After the mass ended, Irena stood up and explained that she had wanted to say a few words about her father but that only the briefest of thank-yous was permitted, which she said, getting in, under the priest’s glare, that she remembered her father with a smile on his face and that she hoped we would remember him that way, too.
And then we all stood up, and Irena stepped down from the lectern. She went to the head of the aisle and, smiling through tears, started to walk back up it, greeting one person at a time, taking him or her in her arms, thanking us for our support.